The End of European Illusions or The Return of Geopolitics

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Five years ago, the European project, known as the European Union (EU), was perceived and seen as a boring endeavor between a group of rich and developed nations. The EU was described as the future of the nation-state, some type of postmodern-entity striving within a complex anarchical system. Robert Kagan even portrayed the EU as a 21st century entity facing a 19th century power, Russia. Instead of asking complex questions about EU strategies in dealing with complex geopolitical dynamics, most international relations scholars and experts were looking at technical issues about power relations between small sub-agents within European institutions to explain decision-making and norms-formations. For over a decade, big questions were set aside for technicalities such as: Is the EU able to defend its interests on the European continent? Has the EU developed clear redlines on how to handle threat on the European continent and its neighborhoods? How would EU Member States behave and act under direct threat?

To some degree, these high politics questions were avoided the same way problematic questions about the limited degree of fiscal integration could jeopardize the whole European experiment in case of a crisis affecting the Euro. For over 20 years, EU Member States have lived with the illusion of a region free of geopolitics, a region free of forces possibly leading to another continental war. Ukraine is demonstrating that such geopolitical-less region was an illusion that Member States were happy to buy into. Ukraine in some ways marks the end of the European illusion, which was not the case in 2008 with Georgia.

European illusion of perpetual peace, growth and stability ended abruptly with the global financial crisis. The global crisis spiraled into a Eurozone crisis affected most Eurozone

Credit: © picture-alliance/dpa
Credit: © picture-alliance/dpa

and non-Eurozone members. Despite the crisis, the Euro has remained a strong currency after the Dollar, but has been perceived domestically as the cause of all European traumas. The Eurozone crisis has exposed a two-speed Europe. The Northern Members, led by Germany, have until recently survived the crisis – even though German economy is showing signs of weaknesses -, while Southern Members have simply sought to survive and save the last elements of the post-World War two welfare state. These financial and economic turmoils have shifted into unsustainable political and societal situations in most weakened EU Member States such as France, Italy, Spain among others. The rise of the extremes has been a reality that Europeans have to live and deal with. The crisis has directly threatened the core of European welfare state.

Regionally, the European continent is far from being this safe-heaven free from territorial conquest and traditional war. Russia under Putin has sought to reaffirm its sphere of influence over ‘lost’ territories and strengthen its regional and global relevance. Putin’s Russia can only exist through foreign attention/recognition, especially from NATO countries. Putin’s interpretation of history, at least Russian history, is key in order to

Credit: AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service
Credit: AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service

understand his actions since in power in 2000. Putin looks back at the lost decade of the 90s as a dark moment in Russian history initiated by Western powers. The then NATO and EU enlargements of Eastern and Central European states were perceived as an attack on Russian national interests. Putin has developed a foreign policy embedded into realpolitik. The use of energy as a weapon against Ukraine almost every winter has been a calculated move by Putin to send a clear signal to Western Europe. But the turning point was the 2008 war against Georgia. At this point, Russia clearly underscored the gap in Western narratives – read NATO and the EU – between commitments to protection of non-NATO members and actions to protect/defend them from Russia. The Ukrainian crisis is the latest illustration of Western risk aversion and unease in confronting Russia. Additionally, Euro-Atlantic members are well aware that the Ukrainian crisis started over a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Almost a year later, Ukraine has lost a part of its territory to Russia, Crimea, and is seeing a civil war in its Eastern territories. If a bilateral trade agreement triggered such tensions in Europe, one can only imagine Putin’s reactions and actions following talks on either EU or NATO enlargement with Ukraine.

The latest chapter in NATO summits in Wales incorporated two dimensions: first, coalition building against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); second, the strategy in addressing Russia. Concerning the first aspect, coalition building against ISIS, President Obama has succeeded in getting his message heard and approved. Following the NATO summit, six EU Member States, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom, plus Australia, Canada, Turkey, have agreed on joining a US-led coalition against ISIS. However, when it comes to Ukraine, NATO failed to come with a plan, let alone a strategy. If Obama feels confident on degrading and destroying ISIS, the only thing that the West can do against Russia is containing it. The rounds of sanctions against Russia have deepened the tensions between both sides, but have yet to seriously affect Russian economy and influence Putin’s actions.

The decades of European growth from the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) to the Treaty of Lisbon (2009) have seen remarkable deepening and widening processes. In terms of deepening, EU Member States were committed to increasing the integration process of the Union; while the widening process, materialized into four waves of enlargement, led to the inclusion of 16 new Member States. Aside from the regional tensions in the Balkans, the EU was believed to offer its Member States a zone-free of geopolitics, a fortress limiting the dark forces of globalization – immigration, state violence, territorial conquest -. Not only it has never been true considering the violence and wars in the Balkans, but it has certainly been an illusion bought by Member States and incorporated in academic research. The series of crisis starting with the 2007 financial crisis, the Arab Spring, continuous and deepening of violence in the Middle East, and the Ukrainian crisis underscore not only the uneasiness of EU Member States to address them, but also the inabilities of the EU to shape its world. The integration process was so successful that the EU Member States have lost their ways in dealing with geopolitics.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission). 
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